The destroyer Decatur conducted a close patrol Friday of the disputed Paracel Islands, a move that challenges China's claimed dominion over the South China Sea islands, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the action.
The patrol did not cross the 12-mile territorial limit of any of the features, but was intended to challenge claims in the Paracels, one official said — claims the U.S. and neighboring countries have called excessive.
The patrol comes amid tensions as Beijing doubles down on its claims to control most of the South China Sea and the land features that pepper the 1.4 million-square-mile body of water.
The distance of the patrol is significant because if the ship patrolled within 12 miles, the Navy would handle it as a freedom of navigation operation that asserts U.S. rights to freely operate in waters claimed by other countries. Those operations need to be approved at the highest levels. It's unclear whether the U.S. views this patrol as a freedom of navigation operation.
"USS Decatur (DDG 73) conducted this transit in a routine, lawful manner without ship escorts and without incident on Oct. 21," said Defense Department spokesman Cmdr. Gary Ross. "The United States conducts these routine operations on a regular basis around the world, in full compliance with international law."
In the past, officials have said that such patrols are not solely directed at China, but are challenges to the excessive claims of all parties. The Paracel Islands are claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and China
Navy Times first reported in July that U.S. destroyers have been regularly patrolling China’s claims in the Spratly Islands and in the Paracels. Experts called it a show of force that signals resolve to the Chinese and U.S. allies in the region.
During 2016, analysts have marked a significant increase in U.S. presence in the South China Sea, though the Navy has been diligent about calling the patrols routine.
During a July visit to China’s North Sea Fleet Headquarters in Qingdao, China, the Navy’s top officer said the U.S. would continue its patrols in the region.
"The U.S. Navy will continue to conduct routine and lawful operations around the world, including in the South China Sea, in order to protect the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of sea and airspace guaranteed to all — this will not change," said Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations.
Tensions around the Paracel Islands spiked earlier in the week when China confirmed it had stationed troops on Woody Island, where it has already built an airstrip, according to a UPI report.
China claims control of most of the South China Sea, and has sought to bolster those claims by building man-made islands atop reefs and shoals in the Spratly Islands chain. Those claims were invalidated by a ruling in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which said China could not create territorial rights by building islands on reefs and sandbars.
China rejected the court’s ruling, saying that it did not have jurisdiction because of prior agreements with the involved parties to negotiate bilaterally.
Editor's note: This article was first published at 9:36 a.m. and has been updated.